When this post goes up it'll be almost a week since I got back from New York but I'm actually typing this up whilst sat on the floor of JFK airport, whilst it's all still fresh in my mind! There's an hour still until our flight leaves, the Duty Free offering at our terminal leaves a lot to be desired and my 30 minutes of free wifi is up so it felt like the perfect time to look back on the past few days, which have been a bit of a whirlwind.
This probably doesn't count as a day to be honest! We flew out from London Gatwick on my actual birthday. We got there a little over 3 hours ahead of our flight because we wanted time in Duty Free and it's always best to be on the safe side. We had lunch at Jamie's Italian at the airport, which was nice because once you go inside you could easily be at any of their branches. I hate feeling like I'm in an airport or train station if I'm having a nice meal so it was ideal. We had time to pick up a few bits in Duty Free and didn't have long to wait after that before it was time to head to the gate, so the timings worked out perfectly.
I'm not a great flyer (as I've mentioned before) and it really has restricted where I've travelled to in the past, so this has been my longest flight to date at 7-8 hours. We were in standard Economy seating but it was long-haul with British Airways so definitely nothing like being squeezed into your Jet2 seat on a £50 flight to Mallorca! It was perfectly comfortable and the flight was so smooth I almost forgot we were in the air. I had a little nap for maybe an hour and spent the rest of the time watching in-flight entertainment (they had so many new films - I went for Deadpool then Midnight Special) and a couple of documentaries I'd downloaded onto my iPad through BBC iPlayer (including Louis Theroux's a New Brain). There was plenty in the way of free food and drink throughout the flight too. It did drag a little at times but I can cope with boredom as long as I'm not panicking. It's really given me the confidence to do more long-haul flights in future.
We arrived at around 7pm EST however that obviously felt a lot later to us given the 5 hour time difference (EST is behind GMT). Somehow we were quite quick to the passport queue but immigration was still a long process, especially given how hungry and exhausted we were. I was just very spaced out and this was when I learned First-Time Brit in America Lesson #1: American public toilets are strange places! The stalls are so 'open'; as a relatively tall person I can completely see over the top of the door and also there's a good inch on either side of it... Plus the toilet water is so high that in my jet-lagged stupor I though literally all of them were blocked! Once we made it out of the airport we got a cab to Manhattan, which is a flat fare of $52 from JFK (plus around $6 for the toll road en route), so not unreasonable at all, especially when there's two people to split the cost between.
We were staying at a place called Hotel Chandler, on East 31st Street, just off 5th Avenue. In all honesty very little thought went into picking the hotel; it was a pretty good location at a fair price with decent Tripadvisor reviews. On this kind of city break you're spending so little time in the hotel that it wasn't a big deal. After checking in we decided just to grab something really quick from a place called Empire Pizza on our doorstep. It was cheap, unpretentious but pretty good and exactly what we needed after such a long day. We forced ourselves to stay up until around 11pm EST (watching Fox News, which was pretty hilarious!) then passed out.
The first night was always going to be a little rough in terms of sleep but I guess it could've been worse. Our hotel room was quite small (you literally opened the door and you were in the middle of the room!) but it's to be expected in a central location and it was charming in a way. The staff were also extremely helpful and friendly. However the air conditioning was so noisy! If you turned it off you were sweltering though, so it really was the lesser of two evils. I was up at 5am and just couldn't get back to sleep so we had a pretty early start, which neither myself nor my boyfriend minded as we were so excited to get started. We went for breakfast at a place called the Tick Tock Diner, which had the kind of uber-unhealthy menu that was probably designed by a 5 year old! (Which explains why my boyfriend chose the place...) I had an Oreo milkshake and red velvet pancakes, which were both so good but I could only manage about a quarter of it. First-Time Brit in America Lesson #2: share food because the portions are massive!
After breakfast we decided to spend the morning shopping. We weren't overly prescriptive on where we went as we were in such a good location that we were happy to wander and take it all in. First-Time Brit in America Lesson #3: learning what the street names mean. New York is on a grid system, which means that as long as you're not in a hurry, it's practically impossible to get lost! I had no idea what the street names and numbers meant but it's pretty simple: they start at 1st street downtown and ascend numerically as you move uptown and there's an East and West end of each so you know which side of the city you're on. The avenues cut across the numbered streets so if you know the avenue and the street, it acts more or less like a coordinate and any taxi driver will know where to take you. Right across the way from the diner was a Duane Read so obviously I hit the drugstore makeup aisles hard! There's pretty much one on every corner and I also visited CVS and Walgreens on our wander. We walked up towards Broadway and my first trip to Sephora happened. I was honestly like a kid in a sweet shop! I think I spent about $400 and got to VIB status in that one trip...
In the afternoon I had my appointment at the Bite Beauty Lip Lab so we hopped on the Subway downtown to Soho. First-Time Brit in America Lesson #4: the subway is confusing! As a person who doesn't live in a city with a subterranean train system, I can objectively say I find the Subway harder to navigate than the European Metro or London Underground! It's a little hard to spot the stations if you don't know where they are, as they don't have the distinctive signage of something like the London Underground and it's difficult to know if you're on the right platform. However on the positive side there's a really affordable flat rate fare regardless of where you go and it seems so much quicker and more direct than the Underground (perhaps owing to the grid layout of the city). Plus, it's not hard to know which train you're after as you just need to find out the line and then it's uptown or downtown.
My original plan was to go to Black Tap, a burger and milkshake place that I'd seen on Instagram. However when we got there the waitress told us in the most 'believing of your own hype' way that they had a 'queue round the block' and we just decided it really wasn't worth waiting around for ages for. As a side note: the entire time we were there we didn't wait more than 15 minutes for a table at any restaurant. When we planned where we wanted to eat we made sure we had a backup option within a 5 minute walk in case of queues, as when you're in somewhere as amazing as New York for just a few days you really don't want to waste previous time waiting outside restaurants. Instead we went to a place called Pera Soho, which turned out to be exactly what we wanted. It was a beautiful day and we got to sit out in the sun with a few cocktails, plus they did really nice, light Mediterranean food that was spot on given the heavy breakfast we'd had.
Afterwards there was plenty of time for a stroll in the sun down to where the Bite Beauty Lip Lab was. If you haven't heard of it; Bite Beauty is a much-loved lipstick brand that's stocked in Sephora and the Lab is a place where they allow you to make your very own personalised lipstick shade (my mixing sheet on Instagram). Pretty much a beauty-lover's dream! You get to pick the finish and you brief the lipstick-maker with what kind of shade you want and they mix it there in front of you and you can tweak it (like more brown, a little darker, less pink and so on). Once you've got your perfect shade you then choose the scent and the style of packaging, which are both also really nice touches. If you'd like to see a post on the experience and the two lipsticks that I made (though obviously those are unique to me) then please let me know! Overall, though it's pricey, it's well worth doing if you're a fellow lipstick fan.
James went for a little wander around the nearby shops whilst I was lipstick-making (because there are a lot of nice boutiques in the area) and we agreed that I'd text him when I was done, otherwise we'd meet back there an hour after the start of my appointment. However I texted and called him and couldn't get hold of him at all! It was half an hour before we were supposed to meet and I was walking around the shops he'd mentioned he'd been at. I was really tired and upset and honestly thought something had happened to him. I headed back to the Beauty Lab and there he was! First-Time Brit in America Lesson #5: don't rely on your phones when you have no data and are using carriers abroad. His phone, for unknown reasons, wasn't sending or receiving anything...
An hour behind schedule, we still decided to head further downtown to the Ground Zero Memorial site and Century 21. Because we had a booking for that evening, unfortunately we didn't have time to visit the 9/11 museum, however we did have a look around the memorials, which were pretty incredible. It's amazing how something so beautiful and peaceful now exists where something so awful happened. There isn't a huge amount to see or do in that part of town (it's the financial district) other than the memorials and, bizarrely, a huge designer discount store called Century 21. It wasn't really my scene (think TK Maxx on steroids) but James was loving it and broke my record for the most money spent in the shortest amount of time from Sephora! If you're into your Michael Kors and so on then it's definitely worth a look, but that's not really my sort of thing so I didn't end up buying anything.
We got back to midtown in time for our booking at the Top of the Rock. Going up the Empire State Building sounded like my idea of hell; being high up in a cramped space (pretty much my issues with flying!) I'd heard the Top of the Rock (the Rockefeller Centre) was a little less packed and also you can see the Empire State from it so we decided that was a better option. It wasn't too stressful getting up there and the staff were pretty funny. The viewing platforms weren't to packed (there's an upper and lower level you can look out from) and it was a pretty clear evening after a beautiful hot, sunny day so we took in some amazing views of the city. We probably didn't stay as long as we might have because James isn't a big fan of heights either! I'd still really recommend doing it though as you can see Central Park, the Hudson River, the Empire State Building and just about everything else from up there.
That evening we encountered First-Time Brit in America Lesson #6: plan where you're going to eat. Although we'd both downloaded the map of New York on Google Maps to be used offline, you actually can't navigate without data - GPS only tells you where you are and although you can search for places, it is much trickier (we suspected that the skyscrapers might interfere a bit with the GPS). New York is huge that you can't really wander around expecting to just stumble upon somewhere good to eat. By this point we'd probably walked close to 10 miles that day (I kid you not) so after hoping to find somewhere around Times Square and only really coming across quite cheesy places. We weren't really clued up on which streets might have some 'off-the-beaten-track gems' we decided to head back to the hotel and regroup.
We were recommended a sushi buffer place just across the way from the hotel by reception, however on the way over there we noticed a Korean restaurant that seemed very busy despite it being quite late (with Korean people, which is always a good sign) called Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong (my dinner on Instagram). It's main offering was galbi (beef or pork on a grill with a range of sides to mix together) however they did have a few seafood options. You do have to get something from the grill if you visit, however my boyfriend eats meat so he did (it was apparently amazing) and I got some incredible seafood pancakes. There was so much food and it was very reasonably-priced and tasted so food! If you eat meat or will be with someone who does then I totally recommend checking this restaurant out if you're staying in midtown New York.
We were definitely a little bit ambitious on our first full day in the city so we decided to take it a little bit easier on the second. The weather wasn't so great so we decided to hold off on Central Park and go shopping before heading to a Broadway show. There are a million ways to get tickets; you can book online ahead of your trip, risk it by waiting until the evening and heading out to see what people are selling at stalls and on the door or you can book on the morning of the show. We went with the final option and managed to get tickets to one of the most popular shows: the Book of Mormon. We had considered a few others, as I quite wanted to see something that wasn't on in London, like Finding Neverland or Something Rotten, however this was definitely a musical I thought would be amazing to see in the US. We paid $200 each for tickets towards the centre-back of the theatre, which wasn't a huge deal to us as it was a pretty small theatre anyway however they did go up to almost double that for some seats so it's definitely not a cheap thing to do. I'm sure it's possible to get tickets for a bit less but that was the only night we could do a show and we really wanted to see that one! The concierge also booked us for dinner before in a nearby seafood restaurant.
We then headed out shopping again, however having blown quite a bit of money in Sephora the day before and then on the tickets, I was happy to let James have his moment! I was actually starting to run out of cash; I'd only converted around £350 (which was around $500) at the Post Office. I had considered a pre-paid card however once I'd looked into it, it seemed a lot of hassle and as though things could go wrong so I just decided to inform Halifax I was going abroad and use my debit card. Now I've had a look at my account I can see the exchange rate offered through my card-provider Visa was pretty good, I just got charged a small fee per transaction, which was not a big deal to me. I probably put around £700 worth of transactions on my card and got less than £10 in fees. I tended to use cash for food and taxis then my card for shopping, which worked out pretty well for me.
First-Time Brit in America Lesson #8 was definitely: tip everyone! In the UK you would tip 10% (or a little more) for good service at a 'sit down' meal and possibly taxi drivers (though the fares are way more expensive over here) or hairdressers. In the US you pretty much have to tip that person you brushed past in the street. Ok, I'm joking, but there's a lot of tipping and sometimes it's hard to tell when people are just being friendly and helpful and when they're looking for a tip and you just didn't realise! I left it to my boyfriend as he has been before but you can also get apps that will guide you on when to tip and how much. Most receipts in restaurants will also show you how much extra to put in if you want to tip 18%, 20% and so on, which is handy.
We pretty much walked the length of 5th Avenue from our hotel in Koreatown to Central Park. My main shops were Sephora, Ricky's (which stocks Morphe, Violet Voss, LA Girl and BH Cosmetics to name a few, so thank you to the Instagrammer who gave me the tip-off!) and Macy's along the way, though we did drop into Saks too. I have to be totally honest and say I wasn't really impressed; it just felt very dated and the salespeople were way too pushy for my liking; overall I just don't feel like it's a patch on Selfridges and I have two of those right near my own home!
It was nice to do the walk as we also saw the Library, St Patrick’s Cathedral and the Atlas statue along the way. We just grabbed a light sandwich towards the Central Park end before walking back up towards the hotel to freshen up before the evening. From all the walking we did over the day I definitely got to First-Time Brit in America Lesson #9: New York roads are insane! The lights just don't seem to mean anything! Taxis drive like maniacs and it seems everyone just goes through red lights, especially cyclists (who seem to think the rules of the road don't apply to them) so you have to be even more careful crossing the road.
The show was at 8pm so we had a reservation at the nearby Sea Fire Grill (it was around a 20 minute walk there from the hotel and another 15 minutes to the theatre). It definitely wasn't the cheapest place but it did have a good atmosphere and the food was really good; I got some crab cakes and macaroni cheese with lobster (a new one on me but it was really nice!) along with a couple of cocktails. We definitely could've hurried up a bit with our drinks as it was a bit of a rush to get to the theatre afterwards, however we made it on time.
As I mentioned, we saw the Book of Mormon, which I'd only heard good things about. I didn't know a huge deal about it other than it obviously being about a group of Mormons and it being more of a comedy musical. I actually didn't realise it was by the creators of South Park or I might have been a little less surprised by some of the 'fruitier' language, however it's nowhere near as crude as South Park (though it has its moments). I actually found the characterisations to be the perfect balance between funny and well-rounded. The story itself, which is about two brand new Mormon missionaries deployed to Uganda, is surprisingly heart-warming too. I did prefer the first act of the show, however overall I really enjoyed it. It had the right mix of laughs, storyline and catchy songs.
After a bit of a so-so day yesterday weather-wise, things started to look up so we didn't want to miss the chance to visit Central Park. We grabbed some breakfast at a place called Blank Slate Coffee + Kitchen which was a stone's throw away from the hotel, on Madison Avenue. They did the yummiest Chai Latte and all my favourite kind of breakfast things like avocado toast, smoked salmon, bagels, scrambled eggs and so on (my breakfast on Instagram).
We got the subway uptown to Central Park because after yesterday's epic walk, our feet were feeling the pain! We actually got off at 66th St, which is a block away from around about the mid-point of the park. It was a lovely, sunny day so of course we grabbed smoothies and went for a wander. We didn't have anything in mind as such so we were pretty easy about where we went and ended up just having a bit of an explore, though we did find the Bow Bridge and a couple of other bridges and fountains.
There's a Shake Shack just outside the park near to the museums so we grabbed lunch from there. It was pretty packed so we took it and sat out in the sun, which was lovely. I feel like their portion sizes were pretty reasonable and I had chips with a portobello mushroom burger and obviously a shake, which was peanut butter and salted caramel for me! (My lunch on Instagram)
We decided to spend the afternoon out of the sun, as it was getting a bit much, so it was the perfect time to visit the American Museum of Natural History (though our feet were hurting by this point!) We didn't get to see absolutely everything but we spent quite a bit of time on the space-themed exhibitions and the evolution section, which are both topics that really interest me so I enjoyed that a lot. However our aching feet eventually got the better of us and we headed back for a bit of a nap before dinner (as my 'waking up at 5am' thing continued throughout the trip).
As it was our last night in New York, James booked (pretty far in advance) a special meal at the View restaurant, which is on the 48th floor of the Marriott hotel in the middle of Times Square. There are windows surrounding the round restaurant and it revolves (very slowly - it takes about an hour to do 360 degrees) so you get a full view from the top. We had a really nice 3 course meal and although there was a set menu, there was still a lot of choice even for me as a pescetarian (though let's be honest, you're really there for the views!) We also had a few nice cocktails and all in all it was a lovely end to an amazing trip.
Sadly the sun didn't come out before we flew back and it was pouring down with rain most of the day. We had planned to go to a place near the hotel called Penelope's, which was meant to be really nice but unfortunately it was too busy so we went back to the tried and tested Blank Slate (my breakfast on Instagram).
The weather cleared up a little just as we finished eating so we headed down to Soho again as James had seen a jacket he'd wanted but we'd been in such rush after the drama last time that he hadn't been able to buy it. I'd toyed around earlier in the holiday with buying a Kate Spade bag but after all the money I'd spend I decided against it, as the ones I'd seen in Macy's were nice but none of them were quite so amazing for me to take the plunge. By complete chance there was a boutique right near where James got his jacket so
we I decided to pop in for a look. They had so many more styles and I was really tempted, however when I saw this bag, I knew it was the one and snapped it up! The staff were absolutely lovely and also gave me 10% off as the bag had been out on display, despite the fact it was in perfect condition and didn't have to at all. I'm absolutely in love with it and although it was £200, I really think it was worth it.
Our flight was scheduled for 20:40 but we decided to spend the rest of the day near to the hotel to give us plenty of time to get over to the station without having to rush. We grabbed some lunch at a pizza place and I finally found a Bath and Body Works before it was time to say goodbye.
I think First-Time Brit in America Lesson #10 was: don't believe stereotypes. It sounds obvious but America is a huge country and although I've only visited a tiny part of it for a short period of time, but I met a lot of people and I have to say that not one of them fits the negative stereotypes that get put out there of Americans. I've known a few people from across the pond in my life but it's not the same as actually going over there. Yes, the portion sizes are huge but not everyone eats to excess. Maybe it's an East Coast thing but I was also surprised to find that when you're out and about you'll even just hear a lot of the same music as in the UK. People aren't insular at all and I found that the waiters, concierge and shop assistants were just that bit friendlier than back home (and not in an overbearing way). So maybe the positive stereotype is a little bit true!
The flight actually ended up being delayed because of an awful thunderstorm (which seemed to follow me back over to London and then to Manchester!) which was pretty annoying as there was so little at our terminal to take our minds off the wait. I was then kept awake for almost all of the overnight flight by a screaming baby. But, you know what? Nothing could put a dampener on what really was an incredible trip!
Although it was such a packed visit, I actually think it was more or less the right amount of time to spend somewhere as hectic (and expensive!) as New York. We didn't do everything I'd planned, but what would be the fun in that? I definitely have a reason to go back and the opportunity to still see amazing new things when I do. Next time I want to see the Statue of Liberty for sure (hilariously my boyfriend has been to New York twice and never even looked at it from a distance!), the Museum of Modern Art and a perhaps few other lesser-known sights.
Have you ever been to New York? What did you think or do you plan on going some day?